I’m a compulsive traveler; I admit it. I can’t help myself. I frequently travel to developing-country environments. I do it for a variety of reasons. Foremost, I hope I’m doing some good.
My friends and I live, as much as possible, on the local economies. We work hard with locals to improve conditions at schools and orphanages. We hope it is travel with a purpose.
In the periodical NewPhilosopher (Fall 2015), three authors give a negative response to the question, “Why do we travel?” Antonio Case believes that our desire for travel is largely based on one-upmanship, and quotes Mark Twain:
We wish to learn all the curious outlandish ways of all the different countries, so that we can ‘show off’ and astonish people when we get home.
Anthony Sharpe is equally critical of humanity’s need to travel:
When we see things with our own eyes, it’s too easy to form ill-founded views about a place and its peoples. These can range from relatively benign romantic notions of the ‘noble savage’ to the more pernicious writing-off of a whole country as an unsophisticated, unfriendly, culinary wasteland. Based on what exactly? Greater insights might be found in books than the contrived moments of a short poverty safari.
Sharpe ends his essay by wondering if he “could do a lot more good if instead of going abroad, I traveled locally, channeling any excess funds into some worthy cause.”
Sharpe’s latter musing is espoused by a movement called “effective altruism” and it’s foremost proponent is Peter Singer, Laureate Professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. It involves staying at home, earning all the money you can, and generously giving to the humanitarian organization (one with a good track record) of your choice. He asks an important question about travel:
Are they doing something significant, or are there causes more important than tourism? And where does the money you’re spending on tourism fit into your budget? I think that’s an ethical issue. You could travel ethically, but it’s complicated.
I would argue that traveling ethically is not that complicated in today’s connected world.
Another negative to travel is it requires a lot of air travel and Singer reminds us that “it’s a fact that most of the travel we do involves burning fossil fuel,” thus contributing to climate change. And climate change has its greatest impact on developing countries. I have no answer for this concern. I will just have to live with the guilt.